Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Critical Review of Modernisation Theory

Critical Review of Modernisation Theory/Approach to development in the period from 1945 till the present.

By Alex Khun - 2005
The School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne Australia

Before beginning to understand Modernisation Theory, it is important to understand what theory is and why we need a theory. According to Britannica 2000 Dictionary, it says: Theory” is a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained, for example, Darwin's theory of evolution. In this essay, I only critically look at the modernization theory from 1945 up until the present as this theory has a great deal of social, economic and political relevance and implications with our present world.

Modernization theory is "a socio-economic theory that highlights the positive role played by the developed world in modernizing and facilitating sustainable development in the under-developed nation states". So historically, the rise of the modern industrial society has been inextricably linked with the emergence of industrial society. The modernization theory is seen as coming into existence after the WWII, in an attempt by the US to rebuild the Western Europe. After the WW2, the Cold War came about (from 1945 till 1991), with Greece and Turkey, especially exposed to the influence of Communism and with the U.S intention to fight against its spread from the U.S.S.R, within which both countries were strategically vital and highly vulnerable states in Western Europe. In February 1947, facing financial problems and the end of its empire, Great Britain announced its plans to withdraw, prompting American fears that Greece and, perhaps, Turkey would fall under the Soviet control. On the 12th March 1947, after Britain plea for help, less then three weeks, President Harry Truman announced to the Congress what come to be called the Truman Doctrine, which says: "It must be the policy of the US to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by the armed minorities or by outside pressures."

The Truman Doctrine helped set the stage of the Marshall Plan, through which the US did much to rebuild Western Europe and counter any communist threat there. But it also paved the way for the policy of containment that would form the backbone of the nation's cold war diplomacy in fighting communism throughout the world especially in Vietnam. George Marshall was then, the Secretary of State who proposed a plan which is now known as the European Recovery Program and later known as the Marshall Plan. This U.S sponsored program was designed to rehabilitate the economies of Western and Southern European nations (including those under the U.S.S.R military occupation) with the aim of creating stable conditions in which democratic institution could survive. Over the next four years, the program distributed over some $13 billion dollars worth of economic aid, helping to restore industrial and agricultural production, establish financial stability and expand trade. Because of the Marshall Plan was very successful with some EU countries, President Truman extended it to less developed countries throughout the world in 1949. This is known as the modernization theory which strongly related to the economic and political development of the world in the 20th century.

Due to the American influence through the development in Europe, countries in the world began to get classified as "developed" which means high-income economies, "developing" means middle-income economies, and "underdeveloped" means low-income economies". According to the theory of development, the concept of development came about from the west and mainly an indication of the economic growth. By 1951 trade within Western Europe had recovered to its prewar capacity, two years ahead of expectations and the European industrial output was 43% greater than the pre-war.

However, currently, the gap between the rich and poor is very far a part. The collective net worth of 691 richest people in the world were estimated a total of $2.2 trillion dollars. But, it's also interesting to note that, as the result of the industrial revolution, particularly in Europe and North America from 1945, we saw the world got far richer in terms of materials and services than any other time in the history of humanity. Attributing to the advancement of sciences and technologies, our material life comfort is greater than before. In many of the developed societies, we have good welfare system, education system and governance. Consequently, we see that people are living longer, better life and more educated than their parents. However, the changes that are happening do not distribute equally among the rest of the countries.

Nevertheless, the period from 1945 to 1972 has been described as the Golden Age of political stability and economic growth. Along side the so-called "Golden Age", came along many problems. Violence is happening increasingly, that we have never seen before. Man take pride in their science and technology development, and thinking that new research and new advancement in science and technologies will bring good things and make our life much more pleasant. But, the truth speaks for itself, man is too proud, that they even invented bombs. For example, the invention of dynamite by Alfred Nobel made him a very rich man and later the Nobel Foundation was established to reward those intellectuals who bring new researches, peace, and stabilities to the world. But what Alfred Nobel did not release was that, his invention killed millions of innocent people. Another example is the nuclear bomb dropped in Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, Japan, killings tens of thousands of people and made the world remember the day. Arms trade is one of the world's major industries. The countries that produce them are countries like the U.S., the Russian Federation, France, Britain and China. Those weapons were sold to other countries and new emerging states. Consequently we see a series of wars, one after another.

Since 1945, after the crimes of Holocaust, the international community has stood by again and again as genocides unfolded. From 1945 till 1993 around 25 million of people were killed in the developing world. This is what Winston Churchill once called a "crime without a name". In addition, the war in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur in Sudan had led to millions of people killed with little intervention from the international community. On the other hand, a large scale of military spending continues to rise. The annual global military budget is today estimated to be around US$1000 billion dollars. This links to the facts that many developed and underdeveloped countries cannot produce their own military hardware, so a large proportion of the state expenditure directed to armaments. With the rise of the Chinese economy, and China's ambition to become the leading country in Asia, from the year 2000 to 2004, China has boosted its military spending from an estimated $14.6 billion dollars to nearly $30 billion dollars.

The impact of economic growth, the advancement of sciences and technologies has caused the phenomenon of globalization. Recently we have seen an increasing trend of people migrating from the global south to the global north to look for work. Apart from the goodness it brings, comes along the adverse effects of money laundering, human trafficking and women being forced into prostitution. These issues were noted to have connections with organised crime syndicates and influential people trying to take advantage of the poor and the unstoppable globalisation process. This in turn leads to the violation of human, civil and political rights. In addition, the effect of globalisation shows that government debts in poor countries are on the rise, with low unemployment, increasing poverty, bankruptcies of large firms and shrinking state resources to meet social needs. In the absence of jobs, many women are forced to work in the sex industry.

Since the collapse of the British, Dutch and French colonialism, there has been a shift in the political influence of the U.S. as seen in their foreign policies towards the world. Until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, we saw American foreign policy was consistent in terms of its methods and goals. The Cold War and the War against Terror gave American Foreign Policy, a truly global scope. From 1945 until now, we have seen the U.S. intervened many times, in former colonial states and many other countries, sometimes with a direct military presence, mostly often through supporting existing governments. The major U.S. interventions, for example, include funding of French Indo-china war from 1945 till 1954, the Vietnam War, the UN-led Gulf War following Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Beyond these interventions, the U.S. has developed a great deal of economic and political influence over many developing states. While those interventions shaped the political horizons of the new states they also posed a number of strategic and ethical dilemmas for the U.S. itself. However, the critiques argue that the U.S. would support any regime no matter how brutal or anti-democratic so long as it was anti-communist. For instance, the U.S supported anti-communist forces in China, the Philippines government during the communist insurgence and the government in South Vietnam from 1945 till 1975. Because of the conflict between the U.S. capitalism and the communist regimes that the first literatures about the development were produced and most of those who wrote these literatures are American theorists who had much influence in the American foreign policies towards the world. Amongst those were economists, political scientists, such as Walt W. Rostow and Samuel Huntington.

The critics also argue that, there has been a great deal of assumptions over the intervention of the U.S. in terms of bringing about changes to the economics and political situations of other states, particularly the developing and underdeveloped nations. Those assumptions are that, the political models or frameworks of the U.S. will work else where; what is good for the U.S is good for the rest; the egocentric, individualism of western ideas were thought by many to bring about good changes, wealth accumulation and happiness. The natural resources are seen as unlimited and this is what lead to the perception and drive for too much growth and resource exploitation. So, this economic growth is seen as the link to democratisation, freedom, peace, stability and harmony. The international order, the system of production, science and technologies, and the ideas of capitalism were thought to be better and that the democratic systems are virtuous, non-democratic systems are repressive.

This is maybe why, the whole modernisation theory is seen by the current U.S. president George W Bush, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, something good that can bring about new changes to the rest of the world, particularly the hot issues of Afghanistan and Iraq and the fight against terrorism. The question that many modern theorists often pose would be, if the modernisation theory is persistent and flawless, would it work in all cases, why does such theory keep reappearing if it does not work? From a gender perspective, it's not what we expect to see that much all of the modernisation theorists are male like Marx, Rostow, Huntington, Zedong. In reality, none of these theories in itself would fit and work perfectly on its own. A balance of these modern theories combined with practicality, would perhaps work best. In my view any theories that jeopardise humanity is not worth considering.

Arising from the development of the society, the advancement of science and technologies and the world, there pose a great deal of challenges for us and the future generations, for examples, the over consumption of the rich nations, the world population growing at a rate of 200,000 people a day, the accommodation of resources, foods and basic needs will dramatically increase. The inequality nature of the world, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, natural disasters like the Tsunami, the war against humanity, the build up of greed, hatred and delusion of the human minds are bringing us to the point where there is no ending to conflicts.

From history and with the observation of the current social, economic and political dilemmas, it seems that the theories of development of the West are not applicable to the East and vice versa. For example, the modernization theory in association with the theory about bringing new democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, while in the backyard of the U.S. itself there's plenty of unemployment, crimes and inequality. And yet the U.S deluded in the view that no one else can govern the country better than itself. The rich people have more material possessions then they ever needed them, while the poor starve to death in Africa, Asia and no one really bothers to help much. Even though the rich countries offer grants to help the poor nations but they brought back to their countries more than they offered. This is why poor nations end up with more debts than they used to.

The problem of the world cannot be resolved by any one particular person or a collective group of powerful people, or a theory. The way people currently view the world must be changed. Yet it's a real challenge for any country or nation state to try to change that perception and mentality about how people perceive the world. Each individual of us look at the world differently depending on their attitudes to social life, the level of education and physical health and well-being of themselves and families. The world is clearly dividing greater than ever. This can be backed up by looking at the gap of the rich and the poor, the never ending wars, be it large or small, civil or official, it's happening everywhere and a great deal of innocent people are dying everyday, yet the world does not seem to care.

So, the whole idea of this development theory can only do so much to minimize the impact of the wrong views we hold and how we act. But it cannot completely eradicate and eliminate the problems. People vowed never to get involved again, but look what has happened, a series of war, one after another. Many people have written a lot about politics, economics theories, but they leave out the most important factor of ethics and moral development of man. When you come to think about it, man are the ones who execute those theories and without the moral guidance going along, the execution can lead to mass murder and execution of people like the Pol Pot did during its 4 years rule. Although, the theories are written from either capitalist or socialist point of view, but pay neither attention to nor consider the development of man as an important factor in the growth of society. If it really does, the world communities wont' be dragged to its current situations. Hence there has been a rapid deterioration in human values and standards in all classes of society. Thus what the world requires today is a socially stable economic system which yields the highest place to man's moral development and cultivation of human values. In this context it's considered desirable that the existing political and economic thought and educational systems should be changed so as to give priority to the development of human values.

I envisage and dare to offer the following alternatives as guidelines and how these can be used in the implementation of internal and foreign policies of the nation states which:

1 Require cooperation between individuals, communities, countries.

2 Fair systems of agriculture, trade, defense services, government services and professional services.

3 Each nation state must not in any illegal and harmful means trying to exploit resources from other countries.

4 Illegalize and enforce strict rules in arms trade, human trafficking, trading of intoxicated substances and poisons. Re-enforce the position of the UN and its charter of human rights.

5 Give humanity problems the top priority more than political and economic problems.

6 Encourage the act of good will between citizens and nation states.

7 Stop the ideas of over consumption and economic growth as it leads to depletion of human resources and pollute the environment.

8 Try to narrow down the gap by getting the poor educated, have decent jobs and reinforce human values and human dignities.

9 The role of the state/government is to try to get the people to see the problem rather than keep them in the dark.

10 Communities must work together to oppose any war, and arising conflict of any kind.

11 Empower all people in the society to adopt the change, see human values rather than economic values.

12 The rich must live simply, so the poor can simply live.


1. Britannica 2000 Dictionary, 2000

2. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia,, August 2005

3. Truman Doctrine,, 2005

4. Far Eastern Economic Review, July-August 2005, Vol. 168, No. 7

5. American History,;jsessionid=2j9cde6ei46cp? method=4&dsid=2222&dekey=Truman+Doctrine&gwp=8&curtab=2222_1&sbid=lc04a&linktext=Truman%20Doctrine, August 2005

6. Theories of Development Lecture and class notes presented by Associate Professor Jock McCulloh, Semester 2, 2005

7. Contemporary Social and Political Theories lecture notes, Semester 2, 2005

8. S. Sassen, "Global Cities and Survival Circuits" in B. Enhrenreich and A. R. Hochschild (eds), Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2003, pp.254-274.

9. Stephen Marglin, & Juliet. B. Schor, eds, (1990), The Golden Age of Capitalism Reinterpreting the Post-War Experience, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 4-6, 8-36

10. Scott, Lamb, Genocide since 1945, Online Resources,,1518,338612,00.html, August 2005

11. China military budget,, August 2005

12. Rich and poor,, August 2005

13. World's richest people,, August 2005

14. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),,2337,en_2649_201185_1_1_1_1_1,00.html, August 2005

15. Alfred Nobel, Inventor of Dynamites:, August 2005

16. ABC Radio Australia, August 2005

17. History of Cambodia,, August 2005

18. World Population,, August 2005

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